Millions of people protested against the pensions reform recently adopted by parliament, claiming it will increase inequality and force people to work until they drop.
A British researcher, though, is asking a different question: Where is the extra work going to come from?
“The idea there are going to be jobs for everyone to work in until they are 64 is unrealistic,” said Simon Thorpe, a CNRS research director with the Brain and Cognition Research Center, Toulouse.
He believes developments in artificial intelligence mean we will have to transition to a society in which we work less, not more.
The ChatGPT AI chatbot, released by OpenAI in November, has reignited debates over technology’s potential to replace humans.
ChatGPT able to pass US bar exam
The latest version, unveiled in March, is even able to pass the US bar exam, scoring in the top 10% of those who sit it.
“I set the questions I ask masters-level students,” Dr Thorpe said. “It generates responses which are better than the vast majority of students.”
A recent report from Goldman Sachs claims AI could replace the equivalent of 300 million jobs worldwide, while at the same time creating jobs in new fields and increasing productivity.
Dr Thorpe insists supermarket cashiers are not the only ones under threat.
‘Skilled’ jobs requiring several years of training will also be affected, from tax accounting to the medical field.
“If you want to look at mammograms and decide if the person has cancer, you can use a trained artificial system,” he said.
People not as good as data
“Training radiologists, or other image analysts, takes years, and in the end people are not as good as a system trained on all the data.”
There will always be a need for doctors for the human side of care, he added, and technology could bring medical services to isolated parts of the country, but machines could take on specific tasks.
He argues that many positions are already artificially maintained when there is little material benefit – what anthropologist David Graeber called “bullshit jobs.”
“In 1930, [John Maynard] Keynes predicted that by the end of the century we’d be working 15-hour weeks.
“Instead, we have a system where people are still working 37 hours [most people in France work more than 35 hours], despite the fact productivity has gone through the roof,” Dr Thorpe said.
He predicts there will be social unrest if nothing is done to prepare for the imminent decrease in available work.
Need to invent jobs
“Either we will have Le Pen or Trump or another outrageous right-wing government, or we fix the problem so that we don’t have to invent jobs for people when there aren’t jobs to be done.”
The solution he puts forward is a universal basic income (UBI) – similar to the policy defended by socialist candidate Benoît Hamon during the 2017 presidential election.
The concepts of unemployment and a fixed retirement age would no longer exist.
“Everyone would get €1,000 a month. If you decide not to do paid work, or just a month a year during the vendange, that’s fine. And if you work until you’re 100, that’s your choice.”
On the other hand, he believes jobs that are currently undervalued will remain essential.
Undervalued jobs remain essential
“There are things which have to be done, like nursing jobs, teaching, unblocking sewers, which you can’t automate away.
In my vision of the future, those jobs will be extremely well paid and people probably won’t do them for very long hours.”
UBI could even function as an incentive to work, he argues, as you would not lose it when your revenue increases, unlike existing benefits.
He is proposing a flat tax rate of 30% on all income, meaning lower earners would pay less in tax than they receive in UBI, while the opposite would be true for the highest earners.
This would allow the system to pay for itself with current levels of employment, he says.
Since employment is likely to fall, he is also advocating for central bank money creation, a tax on assets, and a tax on financial transactions as ways of funding the policy.
If the latter is set at 0.1%, this “could pay everyone on the planet $100 a month”, he says.
If Dr Thorpe is such a passionate evangelist for UBI, it is because he has seen what the future might hold.
The Terabrain Project
He is working with students on the Terabrain Project, based on the idea that neural systems as large as the human brain can be simulated via off-the-shelf hardware.
“The system would run on a MacBook or iPad – billions of neurons which would learn in real time – and do better than ChatGPT,” he said.
“You could do the whole thing on a system where you don’t have to ask Google anything. You’d have all the knowledge on your phone.”
Dr Thorpe says he plans to release the technology when it is ready so that anybody can use it as they want.
“I want to be able to live with myself the moment we provide technology which would make most people’s jobs replaceable.
I’m worried it could be extremely dangerous for society if we are stuck with the current system where everyone has to work 37 hours a week.”
Not everybody is as convinced of AI’s potential. Italy recently imposed a temporary ban on ChatGPT amid concerns over how it uses people’s personal data.
France’s data protection authority, the Cnil, has opened its own investigation after receiving complaints.
These include one from MP Eric Bothorel, who expressed concern after the chatbot provided information about him that was full of errors, including his age, constituency and false claims that he had served as a mayor.